Friday, November 13, 2015

You Must Submit!

The other day, I finished teaching a crash course in academic writing. The structure was simple: students had been asked to submit a paper that they had written for a previous course. In my course, they would rewrite it, essentially by taking the "9-hour challenge". We had about 10 hours of classroom time set aside and they were expected to spend at least 10 hours writing outside of class. Like I say, a simple arrangement.

During the first class, I presented them with my definition of knowledge, the "writing moment", the importance of paragraphs, and the outline of a standard social science paper. This included my paragraph-for-paragraph instructions for writing a three-paragraph introduction and the first paragraph of the conclusion. Their first task, to be submitted for the next class (the 2nd of 3) was to compose those four paragraphs, 27 minutes at a time. A minimum of 2 hours of work.

Most participants submitted those paragraphs, though many admitted that they had not observed the 27-minute discipline very rigorously. Some of them had probably just done the assignment in the usual way, the night before it was due. I told them they would have to take it more seriously for next time. After all, they would now have to write 14 clearly defined paragraphs (two for the background, two for the theory, two for method, six for analysis and two for the discussion). They would need to spend exactly 7 hours doing this, 1 or 2 hours per day (there were about 5 days to the next class meeting.)

As you (unfortunately) might expect, things didn't go so well. Hardly anyone submitted the final assignment (the course was completely voluntary) and half the students stayed away from our final class (the 3rd of 3). This led to an interesting discussion with those who turned up anyway.

One student's remarks, in particular, stuck with me. He told me that he enjoyed the course and had gotten a great deal out of it. He hadn't submitted the final assignment because he had decided to spend his time doing something other than writing paragraphs, namely, thinking about the structure of the paper and "working on it". He had revisited my tutorials (available online) and read my blog and he found it all very edifying and even inspirational. He complimented me on my very good advice and told me he agreed with it entirely.

But he had not, like I say, spent seven hours writing fourteen paragraphs like I had suggested. He had decided to "do something else".

We went back and forth about it for a while. He suggested that building the structure of the paper was more important (for him, right now) than weaving (what I sometimes call) the texture of the paragraph. I countered that, if he thought only about structure but not about the materials it would be built out if, he would erect only a tower of garbage. (The discussion was frank like this, but I think he would agree that it was pleasant.) I told him he was trying to learn the rules and strategies of football but not running his laps with the team. He'd be no good to us come game time no matter how well he understood the problem and "agreed with" my (the coach's) strategy.

Again he said he agreed with me completely, he had just chosen to do something different. In exasperation, I finally said, "I don't want you to agree with me. I want you to submit to my will." I could also have said what I did say on the first day, "You won't learn this by believing what I tell you but by doing as I say." In fact, it's fine if you don't agree with me while you're doing it. Like Niels Bohr's horseshoe, it works even if you don't believe in it.

My exasperation must be like that of the doctor who is treating the high blood pressure of a patient who insists on spending every day in front of the TV. You suggest going for a "brisk walk" for merely 30 minutes every day and they say they understand and agree. But at the next consultation, they tell you that, well, they walked to the store last week (because the car was in the shop) and cleaned the house so that's got to count for something, right? Wrong. What works is deliberate, disciplined exercise. This is true both for general health issues and specific skills training. And it goes for the body as well as mind.

As you can imagine, I find moments of lucidity like this somewhat disconcerting. When you are confronted with naturally talented people who are insistently undisciplined and cheerfully disobedient, and therefore won't actually learn what you are trying to teach them, you begin to feel like a fascist, like your attempt to educate them is actually an attempt to subjugate them. There's nothing more disheartening (and confusing) than hearing someone tell you that they found your lecture "inspiring" while, in the very next sentence, telling you that, "of course", they didn't actually do the thing you suggested.

The only solution I can think of is to go back to grading on a curve. Give the students something to do that you know will make them smarter. Then give the good grades to the students who actually do what you tell them and, therefore, outperform those who are happy just to believe what you've said.


Anonymous said...

Ever since a course with you several years ago now, the (highly regimented) approach to writing papers is the only way I would ever bother to go about it (bother sounds negative, but is intended to convey what is eventually looking to me like a fact: compared to an unstructured approach, your approach is not only less hard on the spirit, but also dramatically more effective). I've seen it with myself and with co-authors and the results keep being the same: consistent ability to finish papers, on time and in positive spirits. And consistently less emotional pain in reworking them subsequently in response to feedback and reviews.

I don't know if it's uplifting, but there's always resistance to diffusion of innovations, even with those innovations having demonstrably superior performance:

Thomas said...

Thank you. Your comment is, indeed, uplifting. And I do in fact think that the resistance is a healthy and natural part of learning how to write. It's good to be reminded.

Presskorn said...

In order to save you from being a "writing despot" (rather than a writing coach), we might say something along these lines:

Since we freely imposes the categorical imperative on ourselves, failure to act on the moral law, Kant says, induces not a sense of guilt (as in transgressions of penal law), but a sense of shame. Your students rightly refuse to feel guilty, but what you are trying to instill in them is a sense of shame. The aim is not really to make them comply with the demand "You must submit!" (as if you were a sovereign), but rather to make them take control of their own writing by showing them ways of feeling the force of "I must submit"...

Thomas said...

The more I think about it, them more certain I am that grading on a curve is the only right approach. If the teacher can say, "Look, there are only 10 As in this course and I have decide who gets them," then they have the students' attention. The hard work that the students now put into to getting those rare top grades will teach them something, even if they are outperformed by the requisite ten students, leaving them with a B (or A- or B+ or however nuanced the scale). On those circumstances, the teacher really does become a coach, not a despot. The teacher's judgment is now constrained by sense of fairness (from Kant, I guess, to Rawls). It is not absolute.